Hearing their call

Understanding the role of cantors in Judaism

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    Cantors, from left, Ivor Lichterman, Amanda Winter, and Evan Rubin at Temple Shomer Emunim in Sylvania.

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  • Cantors, from left, Ivor Lichterman, Amanda Winter, and Evan Rubin at Temple Shomer Emunim in Sylvania.
    Cantors, from left, Ivor Lichterman, Amanda Winter, and Evan Rubin at Temple Shomer Emunim in Sylvania.

    The three cantors of Toledo's synagogues are at very different stages as the Jewish high holidays approach. Amanda Winter, 28, of Temple Shomer Emunim, a Reform synagogue, is new to the area and to the profession. She recently finished a graduate-school cantorial program in New York City, and began at the Temple July 1. Ivor Lichterman, 60, Congregation B'nai Israel's cantor, currently also serves as acting rabbi while B'nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue, is in search for a new rabbi; this is Cantor Lichterman's sixth pulpit, and he is beginning his third year as the congregation's cantor. Evan Rubin, 42, is leaving the cantorate of Congregation Etz Chayim after 19 years of service at the Orthodox synagogue; he recently became a rabbi and is moving to Louisville, Ky., to be the head of Judaic studies at Aryeh Kaplan Academy.

    The three sat together recently to talk about aspects of being a cantor, also known by the Hebrew term hazzan, the title Mr. Lichterman prefers. They are responsible for music, religious leadership, and service. The cantors are getting ready for the high holidays of their religion, with the Jewish new year, or Rosh Hashanah, starting Wednesday at sundown, the faith's day of atonement, Yom Kippur, beginning Friday, Sept. 13, the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, beginning Thursday, Sept. 19, and Rejoicing of the Law, or Simchat Torah, Friday, Sept. 27. 

    Hazzan Lichterman spoke of the solemn nature of the high holidays. He said that non-Jewish people often assume that Rosh Hashanah is celebrated in a secular way like the Christian/traditional new year. “They don't quite see the nature of it, as it's all penitence and repentance and seriousness and fasting and atonement,” he said. “There's a lot of food and fun and getting together, too, and a lot of prayer and a lot of services. The nature is very, very serious; it's not secular at all--the most intense religious day, I think. People miss that.”

    It's not just the holidays that are misunderstood by some who don't follow Judaism. The position of cantor is also a mystery to many.

    “The way I describe cantor to non-Jews is Jewish musical clergy,” Cantor Winter said. In her duties, “I do a lot of work with Bar and Bat Mitzvah students,” she said. She works with the youth during their religious education times, and “also on Friday night and Saturday morning services, I'm the musical person during each service, and I'll help direct the choir as well.”

    Hazzan Lichterman said he describes the cantor as “like a rabbi but more the minister of music, because so much of the liturgical tradition of Judaism is musically based rather than read.” He said that the music can require “a professional musician. It's intricate, it's complex, it's ancient, it's developed over a long period of time.”

    Rabbi Rubin spoke about the difference between rabbi and cantor: “The rabbi is the designated teacher, that's actually the what the term means, so he is the final authority on Jewish law, whereas [cantors] are much more involved in the conduct of the service, or as Ivor correctly pointed out, so much is involved in music, it's not simply read but rather it's chanted or sung, so therefore it requires someone with that knowledge to be able to do so appropriately.”

    Hazzan Lichterman added that the similar Hebrew word hazzon means “a vision,” so he said that a cantor or hazzan is “a minister who creates a musical vision of the content of the service.” Plus, in the Talmud, or Jewish law, the hazzan “took care of various necessities in the synagogue, various different things, which is a lot of what we do today. It is not just a musical thing, there's a lot of other things that we find ourselves having to take care of.”

    The shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown by a cantor much like a trumpet during Rosh Hashanah and at other times.
    The shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown by a cantor much like a trumpet during Rosh Hashanah and at other times.

    For example, Hazzan Lichterman is also a mohel, certified and trained both medically and religiously to perform circumcisions on male infants. And Mr. Rubin trained to be a rabbi and added to his cantorate by serving in essence as assistant rabbi.

    There is also extensive training—in class for some, at an elder's elbow for others—to become a cantor.

    “I just graduated in May” from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cantor Winter said, with studies in Israel and the U.S. “They try to teach you a lot of the traditional ways of chanting as well as some of the more contemporary innovative-type musical additions that have been added to the Reform movement for musical services,” she said. “It's becoming more and more prominent in the Reform school to take classes together; both the rabbinic are taking cantorial classes and the cantors are taking rabbinic classes.”

    “I started when I was five years old as a choirboy,” Rabbi Rubin said, “and stayed in the choirs for my entire childhood, until Bar Mitzvah and puberty, and that was the end of that.” He said he was “learning under great cantors that I had the privilege and pleasure of working with.” That background meant that there were just blanks to fill in as a cantorial student when he got to Yeshiva University, Rabbi Rubin said.

    “My path to becoming a professional cantor was a little different and more the way it was in the old days,” Hazzan Lichterman said. “My late father was a famous cantor from Warsaw, Poland. I learned from him as a little child singing in synagogue when I was seven, eight years old.” Hazzan Lichterman apprenticed under his father, “the way it was always done for hundreds, maybe thousands of years until such time as it became necessary so the art wouldn't be forgotten to form professional schools.” Those schools came along in the 1940s, Hazzan Lichterman said, after the Holocaust. “That was the way. You apprenticed somebody, you sang in their choir, you learned informally until you were good enough to prove yourself and go out on the pulpit.”

    In their Toledo pulpits, the cantors are friendly and close, not competitive. Hazzan Lichterman and Cantor Winter “are now working on a service that our two congregations are doing together [tonight],” Hazzan Lichterman said. “It's really nice for Amanda to start her high holiday part of her calendar year doing a program with us.”

    “As the person who's been here the longest,” Rabbi Rubin said, “I want to say this.... I have had the pleasure of wonderful relationships with every single one of my colleagues in Toledo for the entire 19 years that I've been here. It is a wonderful thing. It's not a given, but we have always shared respect and genuine friendship for all those years—this group and all of the predecessors.”

    “Having come from school where I'm surrounded by other cantorial students and rabbinic students, to come to a place where there are other cantors and rabbis, you tend to gravitate toward those people because they understand more of what you're going through, what's happening, than anyone else in the community would,” Cantor Winter said. “It's nice to have that nearby.”

    For their high holiday services, each cantor has a different reason to do well. These are Cantor Winter's first holidays here, Rabbi Rubin's last, and Hazzan Lichterman gets to concentrate on his cantorial responsibilities while B'nai Israel brings in a guest rabbi, Jason Miller, from Detroit.

    “For me, it's obvious,” Rabbi Rubin said. “It's the last go-round, and it's very bittersweet.” This will be the 20th high holidays here for him; Congregation Etz chayim could no longer afford a full-time cantor and Rabbi Rubin said “it was not plausible” for him to be there part-time. He is gratified by people saying “how genuinely missed I'm going to be,” he said. “I remember making a statement 19 years ago when I got here that I'm not here to lead services, I'm here to make an impact. To have that goal realized, and I say that just from the reaction of people to the fact that I'm leaving, it's humbling to realize the number of lives that I've been privileged to have affected while I've been here.”

    All three congregations' holiday observances are already beginning. Selichos services, which express penitence before the holidays begin, are held tonight; Temple Shomer Emunim and Congregation B'nai Israel have joined for one service, at 10:30 p.m., at B'nai Israel, 6525 Sylvania Ave., Sylvania, and Congregation Etz Chayim's service is at 11:30p.m., at 3853 Woodley Rd. Before those services, Etz Chayim has a dessert reception at 9:15 p.m. and speakers from the synagogue's recent trip to Israel with a slide presentation at 10 p.m. At B'nai Israel, the documentary 18 Voices Present Kol Nidre will be screened at 9 p.m., followed by a reception at 10 p.m., then the 10:30 service. Contact the synagogues for information on high holidays services and times.

    Contact TK Barger @ tkbarger@theblade.com, 419-724-6278 or on Twitter @TK_Barger.